Neurons are particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of misfolded proteins and the accumulation of such species has been associated with neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s disease, amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Alzheimer’s disease and transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (prion diseases). Hereditary protein conformational disorders such as Huntington’s disease are characterised by trinucleotide repeats that result in the insertion of poly-glutamine (polyQ) stretches which adopt β-sheet structures and make the protein prone to incorrect folding and aggregation. The ability to stabilise native protein conformations would likely prevent the neurotoxicity linked to misfolding and scientists at Duke University Medical Center have now discovered compounds that may be able to achieve this.
Since increasing the levels of protein chaperones has been shown to suppress protein misfolding, the team focussed on identifying small molecule activators of heat shock transcription factor 1 (HSF1), the master regulator of protein chaperone gene transcription. HSF1A was discovered using a humanised yeast-based high throughput screen and shown to activate HSF1 in mammalian and fruit fly cells, to elevate protein chaperone expression, and to reduce protein misfolding. HSF1A was also shown to prevent cell death in polyQ-expressing neuronal precursor cells and to protect against cytotoxicity in a fruit fly model of polyQ-mediated neurodegeneration.
Previous screens that have identified activators of HSF1 have not been able to discriminate against compounds that promote HSF1 activation through the proteotoxic accumulation of unfolded proteins or through the inhibition of Hsp90, a central chaperone involved in cell growth, signalling, and proliferation. HSF1A is structurally distinct from other small molecule activators of HSF1 and, although the precise mechanism by which the compound activates human HSF1 is not yet understood, it could lead to new therapies for neurodegenerative diseases caused by protein misfolding.
The study is published in PLoS Biology.